The Last Days Of Lobstering?

The people of Stonington are concerned about the future of their community. They aren’t worried about an approaching nor’easter or the remnants of a tropical storm; they’ve survived many of those. Instead, they are worried about federal regulations, designed to protect the endangered North Atlantic right whale, that they are afraid might sink the Maine lobster industry–the industry that supports many of the businesses and households in Stonington, which is the largest working lobster fishing community in Maine.

On August 31, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administrative (NOAA) issued final regulations that will close a part of the coastal waters off Maine to lobster fishing from October to January, which is traditionally a lucrative time for those in the lobster trade. And then, by May, lobster fishermen will have to configure their lines and traps to meet other new regulations that are designed to limit the number of lines connecting buoys on the water’s surface to lobster traps on the ocean floor and to weaken the strength of the rope lines, so that any right whale that becomes entangled can break free.

That’s a source of significant disagreement between the Maine lobster industry, on one hand, and NOAA and environmentalists on the other. The Mainers say that lobster lines aren’t responsible for a shrinking whale population and that it’s been two decades since a right whale became entangled in a Maine lobster rope. NOAA says, on the other hand, that since 2017 34 right whales have died and 16 were injured by entanglements or ship strikes. NOAA also adds, however, that at least some of those whales were entangled in Canadian gear, and the Maine lobster advocates point out that the NOAA regulations of course won’t affect Canadian lobstermen while the Maine industry is being punished. The Mainers also grind their teeth when regulators say that they use survey data on “predictive density” of whales to close hundreds of square miles of waters to lobster fishing, when the lobster boat captains who are out on the water every day say the practical reality is that whales really aren’t affected.

And the lobster boat captains also note that the alternative fishing method allowed by the regulations–called “ropeless gear”–uses technology that is admittedly “not mature” and would be enormously expensive for individual lobstermen to implement. In all, the NOAA says that it expects the regulations will cost the lobster industry between $9.8 million and $20 million in the first year, and there is no federal money available to help them. That’s a lot of money for an industry where the front-line fishermen who bait and set the traps, deposit the buoys, and hope for a good catch, are primarily independent businessmen who own and man their own boats. That’s why Stonington’s assistant harbormaster, quoted in the first article linked above, says bleakly: “This will sink a lot of people.”

It’s a classic example of the push-and-pull between industry and environmentalism, except this time the “industry” being affected isn’t faceless corporations, but individual, blue-collar lobstermen, many of whom are from families that have engaged in lobster fishing, using the traditional rope-and-buoy approach, for generations. If the new regulations, which are expected to be challenged in court, stay in place, and those independent boat captains can’t afford to comply with the new requirements, it will take away a huge source of both jobs and year-round revenue that hundreds of families count on. It’s not hard to understand why the locals are concerned that the regulations will dramatically change the Stonington community.

20 Years Later

On this 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, I can’t help but remember that fateful day. Although two decades have passed, the memories of the burning, smoking towers, watching the TV news and seeing the planes converted into missiles to achieve the murderous goals of al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, and feeling that the whole world was turned upside down, are still fresh and painful. As that terrible morning of shock and horror ended, we were able to go pick up the kids from school, and one of my lasting memories from that day was the immense feeling of relief at getting the kids into the car and bringing them home, where our family could all be together and we could be sure that all of us were safe and secure. I’ll never forget that feeling.

Twenty years is a long time, and today is a time for reflection. A lot has happened in the years since the attacks. America is still here, of course, but there is no doubt that the country has changed in the interim. That shouldn’t come as a surprise. A shock like 9/11 is bound have some long-term consequences, like a colossal rock thrown into a pond causes ripples that ultimately touch every part of the pond’s shoreline. The key point now, in my view, is to focus on where we go from here. The war in Afghanistan is over, and obviously it ended badly. How does the country respond to that reality, and will we finally learn the hard lessons that we have been taught at the cost of twenty years of fighting, thousands of American lives, and billions, if not trillions, of dollars? Or will we forget those lessons the next time a tragedy tempts a President to take the country into another foreign adventure?

And more fundamentally, where is our country headed as a free, democratic society? Just this week President Biden announced that an administrative agency is working on an emergency regulation that is designed to affect the jobs and livelihoods of tens of millions of people who have made a choice to remain unvaccinated and the companies that employ them. Those of us who remember the Schoolhouse Rock song about the process of how a bill becomes a law wonder how in the world the President can presume to exercise such extraordinary power without hearings, amendments, and ultimately a law passed by Congress that specifically authorizes such sweeping action. But in the years since 9/11, we’ve gotten used to Presidents ordering deadly drone strikes, changing policies set by prior administrations, and imposing new obligations with the stroke of a pen.

In a way, has the long road that began with 9/11 led us to this point, where Presidents feel they can unilaterally exercise such vast powers, without the checks and balances that we learned about in Civics class? And, however we may feel about the best way to deal with the COVID pandemic (and for the record, I’m vaccinated), are we comfortable with a form of government where the executive branch, and in many instances unelected administrative agencies, wield all of the power and can issue emergency decrees that would have profound impacts on the lives (and bodies) of millions of Americans, without Congress, as the collective representatives of American citizens and our diverse communities, having voted to require that course of action, set the structure for how the action will occur, established the rules, and determined the penalties for non-compliance? The likelihood that the Supreme Court undoubtedly will ultimately have its say doesn’t make up for the fact that Congress, which was intended to be the primary instrument of government, has withered into insignificance and plays no role in debating and setting such important national policies.

It’s a lot to think about on a quiet Saturday morning, 20 years after a shocking day that we will never forget. But 20 years provides some perspective, and anniversaries are good times for reflection.

An App Too Far

Governments the world over have struggled to address the COVID-19 pandemic. In the United States, we’ve seen large-scale shutdowns of businesses, mask mandates on planes and in buildings, and social distancing and stay-at-home orders. But it is the Land Down Under — Australia — that has really pushed the envelope.

This week The Atlantic carried an eye-opening article about some of the governmental edicts that have been imposed in Australia–edicts so draconian that the article carries the provocative headline “Australia Traded Away Too Much Liberty.” Consider this partial list of emergency decrees and requirements:

  • Australia has dramatically curtailed its citizens’ ability to leave the country. The article quotes a government website (which you can see here) that states: “Australia’s borders are currently closed and international travel from Australia remains strictly controlled to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. International travel from Australia is only available if you are exempt or you have been granted an individual exemption.”
  • Travel between the six states that make up Australia also is restricted. You can access the governmental website that discloses the current restrictions, which include closing state borders, limiting ability to travel within a state, and mandatory quarantines, here.
  • States have imposed curfews, have banned anti-lockdown protests, and have used the military to disperse and arrest anti-lockdown protesters in Sydney and Melbourne. In Sydney, more than five million people have been in lockdown status for more than two months.

But the most draconian requirement of all is being tested and rolled out by the state of South Australia. It’s an app that the state would require its citizens to download, and the Atlantic article describes it as follows:

“People in South Australia will be forced to download an app that combines facial recognition and geolocation. The state will text them at random times, and thereafter they will have 15 minutes to take a picture of their face in the location where they are supposed to be. Should they fail, the local police department will be sent to follow up in person. ‘We don’t tell them how often or when, on a random basis they have to reply within 15 minutes,’ Premier Steven Marshall explained. ‘I think every South Australian should feel pretty proud that we are the national pilot for the home-based quarantine app.’”

It’s a pretty amazing development when a democratic government claims the ability to unilaterally require citizens to download an app, respond to random government texts, and be required to respond within a specified time period with a personal photo showing they are in “the location where they are supposed to be” or receive a visit from the local police. It’s even more amazing that the head of that government actually thinks citizens should be proud that their state government is the leader in imposing that kind of extraordinary government intrusion. I’d like to think that no duly elected government in America would think that kind of action was anything other than an egregious overreach–but then, I would have thought the Aussies would never have done anything like that, too.

There’s obviously a delicate balance between preserving individual rights and liberties and dealing with public health issues. As The Atlantic article notes, Australia’s dramatic decrees can be cited as allowing it to achieve COVID-related death statistics that are far below those in the U.S. But Australia also shows how the balancing of health and rights can tip decidedly to one side, in a way that strikes at the core of freedoms that are a defining characteristic of democratic societies. Citizens of other countries should be looking at what has happened in Australia and asking themselves: “Was it worth it?” and “Could that happen here?”

Cuomo’s Fall

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has resigned, brought low by a New York Attorney General report that found that he had harassed multiple women. His resignation will take effect in 14 days, at which point he will be succeeded by New York’s lieutenant governor. He continues to be investigated by multiple legislative committee and district attorneys.

Only a year after Cuomo was lauded by the news media and social media, and mentioned as a potential presidential candidate as a result of his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic–a handling that later gave rise to its own set of questions about Cuomo’s truthfulness and transparency–the formerly defiant, powerful politician has been dethroned, done in by his own wretched excesses and improper conduct. He thought the rules didn’t apply to him, and now he has found that they do. He deserves his sorry fate, and one can only hope that his plummet from the heights to the ashes will serve as a cautionary tale and lesson for other politicians who believe, in their hubris, that they also are bulletproof. One can also hope that his story might cause other people to hesitate before giving unqualified and gushing praise to political figures who might turn out to have feet of clay.

Cuomo’s dizzying fall reminds me of the poignant poem Ozymandias, by Percy Bysshe Shelley:

Ozymandias

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

The Space Invaders

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is dealing with the fallout of a devastating report released by the New York Attorney General’s office that found that he had sexually harassed at least 11 women and that his office featured a “toxic culture” of fear and intimidation. Cuomo responded to the report by saying that he “never touched anyone inappropriately or made inappropriate sexual advances.” He says the report is inaccurate, biased, and the product of politics, and so far he has rejected countless calls–ranging from President Biden to multiple officials within the New York state government–that he resign from office.

Cuomo’s lawyer prepared and released an 85-page response to the Attorney General’s report. One of the interesting things about the response is a section with “eight pages with photos of the governor hugging various people, and another 15 showing hugging involving political figures including President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, former Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, and Hillary Clinton, the former secretary of state and U.S. senator from New York.” (You can read Cuomo’s statement about the Attorney General’s report and find his 85-page response here.) The response document explains, at page 5, that Cuomo “has hugged or kissed male and female members of his staff, Al Gore, Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton, Andrea Stewart Cousins and Carl Heastie, as well as constituents he meets on the street, and family and friends, as has been well documented.” The response contends: “The Governor’s conduct in this regard is unremarkable: Democratic and Republican politicians, male and female alike, use handshakes, hugs, and kisses to connect with others.”

In short, politicians routinely invade the personal space of everybody, male and female, so what’s the big deal? The implication is that such unwanted contact is not harassment, it’s just the reality of how politicians generally behave.

Of course, not every politician engages in serial hugging, kissing, and touching. When I worked on Capitol Hill, my boss, Congressman Chalmers P. Wylie, was a very proper person who never, in my personal experience, did anything more than give a good firm handshake for a “grip and grin” photo with constituents. And while other politicians seem to crave close physical contact–you can find lots of photos of President Biden awkwardly touching people, for example–the fact that other politicians don’t recognize boundaries doesn’t excuse Cuomo’s behavior. More importantly, can anyone really doubt that the power relationship allows politicians like Cuomo to behave as if the normal rules of interpersonal conduct don’t apply to them? If you look at the photo above, it’s hard to believe that any normal person would hold someone’s face in that way, and then not recognize from the woman’s facial expression and obvious discomfort that the contact was unwelcome–and upsetting. But that’s not how the “personal touch” politicians are wired.

We’ll have to see what happens with Governor Cuomo and any litigation that might result from the Attorney General’s report and other apparently ongoing investigations. But maybe his “everybody does it” defense might actually cause people to take a closer look at handsy politicians and bring an end to their hugging, clutching, shoulder-grabbing, close-talking invasions of personal space. Politicians really need to learn to keep their distance.

The Delta Variant

The Delta Variant. It sounds like the title of a bad Robert Ludlum or Tom Clancy novel, doesn’t it? And according to the news reports it is lurking out there, ready to pounce, and threatening to propel us into a mask-wearing, social distancing, stay-inside-your-house reprise of what we went through in 2020–like the situation found in Australia, where a Wall Street Journal article recently argued that the governmental COVID responses have returned the Land Down Under to its roots as a nation of prisoners.

Already we’re starting to see signs of what might lie ahead. This week the CDC and the Biden Administration reversed course on mask-wearing, saying even fully vaccinated people should wear masks indoors in places with high COVID transmission rates. Only two months ago, the CDC said fully vaccinated people didn’t need to wear masks indoors. The CDC also recommends that everyone in grade schools–kids, teachers, staff, and visitors,–wear masks even if they are fully vaccinated. And the CDC’s abrupt reversal seems to presage additional policy shifts and concerns coming up. The CNBC article darkly warns: “The updated guidance comes ahead of the fall season, when the highly contagious delta variant is expected to cause another surge in new coronavirus cases and many large employers plan to bring workers back to the office.”

What caused the CDC to change its mind, again? The CNBC article linked above quotes CDC Director Rochelle Walensky as saying the change is based on “new science” and data showing that the delta variant behaves “uniquely differently from past strains of the virus,” suggesting that some vaccinated people “may be contagious and spread the virus to others.” But the description of the rationale sounds very contingent and conditional–and, frankly, perhaps the result of some guesswork. There seems to be healthy disagreement in the medical profession about just how dangerous the delta variant really is. And there definitely is disagreement about how to deal with COVID and kids, as a recent New York magazine article demonstrated.

Here’s the issue, as I see it: our health care experts and politicians don’t seem to realize that their credibility isn’t what it once was. They seem weirdly panicky and overly protective, and willing to reverse course and make sweeping decisions that disrupt the lives of millions on the basis of untested models and supposition, rather than hard science. They also don’t seem to take into account the cost and impact of their suggestions, whether it is the mental health impact of isolating people due to shutdowns, the health effect of breathing through masks for hours on end, or the economic effect of restrictions on activities. And their latest change also undercuts the impetus for the crucial public health initiative of encouraging COVID vaccination. Some who haven’t been vaccinated will reason that if even fully vaccinated people need to wear masks to protect the unvaccinated, what’s the point of vaccination in the first place? And if protecting the unvaccinated is the goal, how long will this latest round of mask-wearing rules last?

It’s obviously not ideal that there is growing distrust of the public health authorities and politicians, but it’s important that those people recognize that the distrust and skepticism and resistance to sweeping edicts exists, and won’t be going away. If autumn brings new calls for lockdowns to deal with the delta variant, the general level of skepticism about the need for that kind of draconian action will be heightened–and I expect that the level of acceptance and compliance among the general population will be affected, too.

Faceboss

I don’t really spend much time on Facebook. I post blog entries to my Facebook page, take a look at what’s on my page when I’m doing that, and try to pay attention to birthdays. But that’s about it.

But boy—do I ever get a lot of notices on Facebook. And a lot of those notices seem, well . . . pretty darned bossy. Facebook will tell me that it’s been x number of days since I’ve been to the page for a Facebook group I belong to. Facebook will call up old photos from years ago to say it was the most popular post of 2015, and ask if I want to post it again. Facebook will try to prod me to do x, y, or z using various Facebook tools. And sometimes, when one of my Facebook friends adds to their Facebook “story,” Facebook will notify me of that and explain that I can either respond or react to the new “story” post. No duh! It’s as if Facebook thinks I’ve got the mental abilities and savvy of a four-year-old and constantly need reminders and explanations to navigate through the Facebook World.

Of course, Facebook wants to encourage people to be on Facebook as much as possible—that’s how it makes money. And Facebook is also trying to monitor and curate the contents of its pages. But in our overly politicized world, where social media is a kind of public forum like the town square of days gone by, we need to be mindful of Facebook’s paternalism and somewhat overbearing attitude. As we move closer to the next set of elections, we’ll have to pay attention to how Facebook, and other social media sites, regulate their content, react to the simple expression of political views at all points on the vast American political spectrum, and instruct us about what they’ve done, and why.

I may need to be reminded to visit a group page I’ve neglected, but I don’t need to be told how, or what, to think. I’d like to believe I’m perfectly capable of sifting through the simple, unadorned political views expressed on social media and deciding for myself.

First Amendment Lessons

The Supreme Court issued an interesting First Amendment decision yesterday that is worthy of note on multiple levels–both for the important lessons it teaches about our modern social media society, and also for what it says about the boundaries of what public officials and school administrators can and cannot do, under the First Amendment, when somebody says something that they really don’t like. You can read the Supreme Court opinion here.

The facts are straightforward. A high school freshman tried out for the school cheerleading squad. She didn’t make varsity, but was offered a spot on the junior varsity. She was disappointed and angry about the decision, particularly since another freshman made the varsity squad and–like so many teenagers (and adults) these days–she took to social media to vent her apparently considerable frustrations. She took a picture, at a location off school grounds, that showed her and a friend with middle fingers raised and a caption with the Queen Mother Of Curses used in connection with the school and the cheer squad, and sent it to her 250 Snapchat “friends”–which included some other students who were members of the cheer squad. They took pictures to preserve the Snapchat post, which then was shared with other students, the cheerleading coach, and eventually the school administration.

And there’s the lesson in today’s social media-saturated world: don’t post or share something that you wouldn’t want to be circulated to everyone in town or printed on the front page of the newspaper. If our kids were still in school, I’d have them read this decision about an ill-advised social media effort that had immediate consequences and eventually ended up in the United States Supreme Court, and suggest that they think about the disappointed cheer squad applicant the next time they wanted to send an edgy, racy, or profanity-laced tweet, Snapchat, or other social media posting. And adults, including me, would benefit by reading it, too, as a useful reminder about how intemperate language launched in the heat of the moment can have lasting, and unwanted, ramifications.

In this case, the student apologized for the vulgar photo and crude language, but the school administration found that she had violated team and school rules by using a profanity in connection with a school extracurricular activity, and she was suspended from the cheer squad for a year. The student and her parents sued, claiming that the school’s disciplinary action violated the right to freedom of speech under the First Amendment. The Supreme Court ruled, in an 8-1 decision, that it did.

The Court’s decision is not a license for students to flash the middle finger at teachers during class or cuss out the assistant principal in the school hallways. The Court noted that while students aren’t stripped of their First Amendment rights when they go to school, reasonable adjustments to freedom of expression must be recognized to accommodate the special school environment. A key fact in this case was that the photo was taken off school grounds, but even that fact is not dispositive; the Court recognized that, in certain circumstances, schools can still properly regulate speech and conduct off-campus–such as in dealing with bullying or responding to physical threats against teachers. On the other hand, certain kinds of speech, such as the expression of religious and political views, will merit special protection against disciplinary action. And, because circumstances can change, the Court declined to articulate a broad rule about which off-campus speech and conduct scenarios can be regulated by schools, and which cannot. Those contours will have to be established by later cases and their specific factual circumstances.

Interestingly, the Court also cautioned school districts about understanding their role in making sure that students–and school administrators themselves–truly understand what the First Amendment is all about. The majority opinion states, in language that those of us who believe strongly in the value of free speech will applaud:

“Our representative democracy only works if we protect the “marketplace of ideas.” This
free exchange facilitates an informed public opinion, which, when transmitted to lawmakers, helps produce laws that reflect the People’s will. That protection must include the protection of unpopular ideas, for popular ideas have less need for protection. Thus, schools have a strong interest in ensuring that future generations understand the workings in practice of the well-known aphorism, ‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.’”

In applying these concepts to the would-be cheerleader’s Snapchat post, the Justices concluded that, vulgarity aside, the student was simply criticizing the school and the cheer squad coaches–and protecting our ability to criticize our public officials is one of the core purposes of the First Amendment. She spoke off-campus, used a private communications mechanism, and didn’t target the school or any teachers or coaches by name, all factors that weighed in favor of First Amendment protection. Her right to criticize outweighed the school’s professed interests in promoting good manners among its students, in avoiding potential significant disruption of school activities (the Court noted there was no evidence of disruption caused by the Snapchat), and in protecting the morale of the cheer squad members.

The Court concluded: “It might be tempting to dismiss [the student’s] words as unworthy of the robust First Amendment protections discussed herein. But sometimes it is necessary to protect the superfluous in order to preserve the necessary.” Those are thoughts that I wholeheartedly agree with, and I hope that others–from public officials to the people who are readily offended by opinions they don’t agree with–also take that lesson to heart.

But what of the student whose ill-considered Snapchat started this kerfuffle and produced the Supreme Court’s ringing reaffirmance of the importance of the First Amendment? I bet, deep down, she wishes she had never sent that stupid, angry Snapchat in the first place.

The Unanimity Factor

From my perspective, one of the worst things that has happened to our federal governmental system has been the increasing efforts to apply political notions to our federal judiciary. Supreme Court nominations have been politicized for a while–although not for long as you might think; former Justice Antonin Scalia, a conservative stalwart, was confirmed by a unanimous Senate, 98-0, in September 1986–but now circuit court and even district court nominations are being treated politically, too. For example, Law360, which does daily on-line reporting on legal issues, breathlessly reports on how many judges President Biden (and before him, President Trump) is appointing, how many vacancies are open, and similar information, as if the make-up of the federal judiciary is some kind of political horse race.

And to read what some people have to say about the Supreme Court, you’d think that the Court is hopelessly divided along partisan political grounds, and that those Justices in black robes are at each others’ throats and at risk of throwing punches and karate kicks.

That’s why it’s interesting to observe that the Supreme Court has issued a remarkable number of unanimous decisions this term, for a Court that is supposed to be a festering sore of reflexive political division. And as we approach the end of the Court’s term, when many of the biggest and most controversial decisions traditionally are announced, the theme of unanimity has continued. That means that the Justices who some would contend are motivated entirely by their political affiliations have somehow managed to set aside their differences and mysteriously reach the same decision on the case presented to them.

The unanimity has occurred in a broad sweep of cases, including cases involving the authority of tribal police, whether there should be a presumption in favor of the credibility of immigrants, cases involving unlawful entry into the United States and an environmental clean-up dispute between the U.S. government and Guam, and cases involving the interpretation of a federal statute involving efforts to block collection of a tax and the scope of an exception to the Fourth Amendment prohibition on warrantless searches and seizures. And just this week, the Court issued another unanimous decision on whether the City of Philadelphia’s refusal to contract with Catholic Social Services for the provision of foster care services unless that organization certified same-sex couples as foster parents violates the free exercise of religion clause of the First Amendment.

The issue here isn’t whether the Court’s decisions are right or wrong on their merits, or as a matter of public policy. The key point is that a Court that is supposed to be on the verge of ideological fisticuffs is somehow managing to reach complete agreement on how to resolve a slew of controversial cases. And people have noticed the many instances of unanimity, and some have wondered whether the Court is trying to send a message to those who view its work in political terms.

Maybe, just maybe, the women and men who make up the highest court in the land are simply acting as impartial, fair-minded judges deciding the cases before them, on their merits and without regard to politics. It would be wonderful if the media, and the politicians, and the pundits and commentators who want to turn the federal judiciary into another political arm of government could just assimilate that reality–but in our current hyper-politicized times, that’s probably just too much to ask for. If only they were as objective and fair-minded as our jurists.

What To Do With An Odd Hall?

The old saying is that all politics is local. That’s definitely true in Stonington, where residents recently had an in-person town meeting at the local baseball field, so as to allow appropriate social distancing. At the meeting, the attendees discussed and voted on a number of issues. One of them was what whether to proceed with the town purchasing the building shown above.

It’s the former meeting hall for the local chapter of the International Order of Odd Fellows, located on the western edge of Stonington’s small downtown area. There aren’t many Odd Fellows left in Stonington, so the organization offered to sell the building to the town. Town officials were supportive of the idea and put it on the agenda for the town meeting, where residents voted to approve the purchase.

Why would residents vote to approve the acquisition of an old fraternal organization building? One of the arguments was to keep it out of the hands of a buyer who would turn it into a personal residence, thereby further hemming in the commercial area of town. And while the building may need a lot of work—a point made by opponents of the purchase—the property sits on precious waterfront and includes an old dock, both of which could give rise to commercial uses.

The cost of the building to taxpayers is initially estimated to be $525,000, which is a lot of money for a small town. Town officials are exploring the possibility of getting federal and state aid to help pay for the purchase and the necessary refurbishing work, and also are working on potential uses for the building.

It’s a tough issue. The Odd Fellows’ Hall could turn out to be a white elephant that puts a crimp in the city budget, but towns like Stonington need to preserve their commercial areas, too. It’s a risk, of course, but it’s reasonable to believe that some business somewhere will see the potential of a building that commands a great view of the harbor and will turn a derelict venue into a functioning contributor to life in downtown Stonington. The voters at the town meeting see an opportunity. Now we’ll keep an eye on that building to see if the opportunity is realized.

A Maine View On Immigration

The Working Waterfront is a local publication that covers Maine’s coastline and islands. The June 2021 issue carried an interesting story about immigration and its importance to the future of Maine’s economy, which includes both Maine-specific industries, like seafood harvesting and processing, forestry, tourism, and farming, as well industries found everywhere, like elder care and health care.

The bottom line is that Maine is desperate for workers, and is looking to immigrants to fill the void. And when Mainers talk about “immigrants,” it’s not just people who come to Maine from other countries, they’ll gladly welcome people from other parts of the U.S. who might want to come here to work, too. The Working Waterfront article calls all of these people “New Mainers,” and estimates that the state will need at least 75,000 of them over the next ten years to keep Maine’s industries economically viable. That number will allow replacement of the 65,000 workers who will be hitting retirement age–according to the Census Bureau, Maine has the oldest population, per capita, in the U.S.— and adds in some additional workers to allow for growth.

The article reports that businesses have already begun to fill the worker void with New Mainers–primarily immigrants from overseas. One seafood processing firm reports that more than half of its 400 employees are New Mainers, with many of them hailing from the Congo, Angola, Vietnam, and Cambodia, while a lobster business includes employees from the Congo, Angola, Cambodia, and El Salvador. The businesses see these New Mainers as hard workers who are eager to succeed and enjoy their share of the American Dream, and the New Mainers see the Pine Tree State as a land of opportunity.

Immigration has been a hot-button issue for a long time, with a lot of attention focused on America’s southern border. But the immigration story is a complex one, and involves a lot more than a surge of desperate people wading across the Rio Grande and how we should deal with them. The reality is that America needs immigrants, and immigrants need America, and we need to figure out a way to allow people who want to work to get into our country, legally, and fill the employment voids in places like Maine. It’s pretty clear that New Mainers will be an important part of this state’s future.

Mixed Messages

We’re at a weird time in America. At the same time many of us are completing our COVID-19 vaccinations, getting our vaccination cards, and feeling like we are on the cusp of returning to some reasonable measure of personal freedom, and some states are beginning to loosen their restrictions, we’re getting dire warnings from national leaders and public health officials about a potential “fourth surge” of the pandemic in the United States.

(Would it really be only a “fourth surge”? I’ve lost count, frankly.)

The statement made yesterday by Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the Director of the CDC, is pretty jarring for those Americans who hope that the worst of the pandemic is behind us and there is a light at the end of the tunnel, just ahead. After reporting on increases in the number of COVID cases (now topping more than 30 million Americans) and hospitalizations, Dr. Walensky went off script to confess, in emotional terms, to feeling a sense of “impending doom” and said she was “scared” that the country could be on the verge of a new surge as COVID variants infect the unvaccinated parts of the population. President Biden also said that “now is not the time” to remove masking and social distancing requirements.

The statements by Dr. Wallensky and President Biden have to rattle the confidence of people who believe a return to “normal” is not far away. The average citizen is getting pretty mixed messages right now. We’re feeling good that vaccinations are being made available to most age groups and seeing lots of social media posts with pictures of bared arms getting jabbed and vaccination cards, and we know that restrictions are being loosened in many places–but at the same time we are getting alarming warnings and, for many of us, we know people who are continuing to come down with COVID even now.

And part of the problem with this confusing mix of data and messages is that it is occurring against the backdrop of obvious pandemic fatigue and, in some quarters, a growing distrust of the pronouncements of our public health officials and concern that they are never going to let the world get back to 2019 normality. The CNN analysis piece linked above describes the unsettled situation this way: “The nation is caught on a ledge between triumph and a late game disaster in a fight against a pathogen ideally engineered to exploit lapses in public health, resistance to mask wearing mandates and the frayed patience of a country disorientated after a year when normal life went into hibernation.

These different perspectives necessarily inform how people react to the messages we are getting. When the doctor who is the head of the CDC admits to being “scared” and feeling a sense of “impending doom,” is she conveying a legitimate, albeit emotional, reaction to the latest data, or is her message part of the newest effort to keep people frightened, masked up, and in their houses indefinitely?

Now that we are vaccinated, we’re going to try to get about our lives–but prudently. I’m still going to engage in social distancing, and I’ll gladly continue to mask up in enclosed spaces. I don’t think we’re done with COVID-19 just yet.

Outrage At The Capitol

When I was a kid I received a small bronze replica of the U.S. Capitol with green felt on the bottom as a gift. I kept it on the dresser in the bedroom UJ and I shared, and when I looked at it it made me feel proud to be a kid in America. Years later, Kish and I lived in an apartment only a few blocks from the Capitol and worked in the neighboring congressional office buildings and in the Capitol itself. We saw the colossal Capitol dome, white and bright against the sky, when we walked to work in the morning. We had lots of visitors in those days, and I often took them on a tour of the Capitol, statuary hall, the legislative chambers, the former seat of the Supreme Court, and the awesome Rotunda beneath that huge dome.

For me, at least, the Capitol, with its graceful marble facade and great dome, has always been a solid, reassuring, tangible, powerful symbol of our American democratic systems and way of life. And it is precisely for that reason that the riots that occurred yesterday — riots that, according to D.C. police, left 4 people dead and the Capitol littered with broken glass and smashed doors as rioters surged through the building just as Congress and the Vice President were fulfilling one of their most important electoral obligations — were so unforgivable. The rioters deliberately interfered with the workings of government, put the lives of elected representatives at risk, disgraced and defiled one of our most important democratic symbols, and made a cruel mockery of our proud tradition of the peaceful transfer of power after an election.

The D.C. police are reporting more than 52 people have been arrested, but I am hoping that that is just the tip of the iceberg. Authorities should pour through the photos and video of the people cavorting through the Capitol, vandalizing the building and its grounds, standing on statues, and stealing and smashing, and prosecute them to the fullest extent of the law. We should make them pay for debasing our symbols, our processes, and our traditions.

To their credit, Congress and Vice President Pence went ahead and certified the election results after the rioters were cleared away — which means the rioters failed in their essential purpose, as Vice President Pence observed — and after the certification President Trump finally pledged an “orderly transition” when his term ends on January 20. From the President, those words are too little, too late. By refusing to acknowledge reality, associating with the lunatic fringe, and stoking their feverish tantrums, President Trump has given our country a black eye in front of the watching world. He sowed the wind, and he has reaped the whirlwind. His antics have been inexcusable. He claims to be an “America first” patriot, but he has deeply embarrassed our country, all of its citizens, and the many people who held their noses and voted for him in good faith — and himself, assuming he is even capable of feeling embarrassment.

Donald Trump may never admit to any mistakes, or accept any fault or responsibility for his actions, but apparently he is concerned about the value of his “brand.” I hope he is capable of understanding that what he has done has stripped his “brand” of any lingering value it might once have had. Americans aren’t going to forget this outrage or Trump’s role in it.

Lincoln On The Verge

I’ve had a chance to do some real leisure reading over the holidays, which is a wonderful way to spend a few days away from work. The first book I tackled was terrific: Lincoln On The Verge: Thirteen Days To Washington, by Ted Widmer. I highly recommend it to anyone who has an interest in American history generally, and Abraham Lincoln specifically. (And a hat tip to JV, who recommended it to me in the first place.)

You might call Lincoln On The Verge a microhistory. It focuses specifically on the thirteen-day train trip Lincoln took from his home in Springfield, Illinois to Washington, D.C. They were thirteen momentous days, as the South was moving from secession to a full-blown Confederacy, with a government, a President of its own, and ongoing seizures of federal facilities as the do-nothing Buchanan Administration sat idly by, twiddling its thumbs and utterly failing to uphold, preserve, and protect the Union or the Constitution. It’s hard to read this book and not come away with the distinct view that James Buchanan was the most worthless holder of the Presidency ever: corrupt, inept, helpless, and presiding over an Administration thoroughly infused with southerners who were actively undermining the Union they were supposed to be serving.

For Lincoln, it was a dangerous time on a personal level. As the country was coming apart, he was the subject of countless assassination threats — and, on the trip itself, actual assassination attempts and other dangers as he went out among the people. He also faced a different kind of risk. As was traditional during that time period, Lincoln had remained silent during the campaign for the Presidency, letting his surrogates and many campaign biographies work for his election. But as the train trip began, Lincoln began to speak, and ended up giving dozens of speeches as his special train followed a zig-zag course through Illinois, Indiana, Ohio (including Cincinnati, Cleveland, and Columbus), Pennsylvania, and New York. Some of his speeches were clinkers, but others were brilliant reflections on the American experience. Lincoln’s speeches to the masses that came out to greet him on his winding journey set a marked contrast with President Buchanan, who never spoke in public, and helped to build essential public support for the Union cause and for the Civil War that lay just over the horizon. The journey was capped by a run though the dangerous slave state of Maryland, where the threat of an assassination attempt loomed large, to finally reach Washington, D.C., the capital city nestled between two slave states.

Along the way, the formerly clean-shaven Lincoln continued to grow the beard that we now associate with him, and was seen and distinctly remembered by hundreds of thousands of ordinary Americans — including some who went on to become famed poets, sculptors, advocates for the abolitionist movement, and future Presidents. As the journey progresses, the reader also gets glimpses of a very different, rapidly growing America on the cusp of earth-shaking conflict and change.

It’s a fascinating story, and one that strongly resonates today. The subtext of the entire book is pretty clear — good leaders can make a profound difference and bring people together in a common cause even in the face of incredible divisiveness And the ultimate message is clear, too: where would we be if Abraham Lincoln had not been there to accept the greatest challenge in American history?

The Abolitionists’ Carol

The other day I was listening to the essential Sirius XM Holiday Pops channel when a version of O Holy Night was played. It’s one of my favorite Christmas carols, and it was one of Mom’s favorites, too. She loved the Mario Lanza version, with the tenor using his great voice to hit some of the high notes that make the tune so stirring and powerful.

But the message of the song is powerful and stirring, too. Particularly the third verse that goes:

Truly he taught us to love one another:

His law is love and his gospel is peace.

Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother,

And in his name all oppression shall cease.

For Christmas carols, that’s about as political a message as you are going to get — but of course the notion of ending human bondage and instilling brotherhood for all fits neatly with the entire redemptive thrust of the Christmas story. The verse got me to wondering, though: when was O Holy Night written, and was its author an abolitionist?

In fact, the song does have a significant abolitionist history. O Holy Night began as a French poem, called Midnight, Christians, that was written in the 1840s by an atheist to commemorate the dedication of a new church organ. The poem was later set to music and became the French carol Cantique de Noel. It became popular even though French church authorities criticized its message as not being sufficiently reverential. The song crossed the Atlantic and, in the 1850s, as tensions between the North and South reached the boiling point, an American abolitionist minister named John Sullivan Dwight translated the song into English and no doubt applauded the resulting anti-slavery message. As the Civil War neared and then burst over America, the song became extremely popular in the Union states — and probably was never played, or sung, in the short-lived Confederacy.

It’s not hard to imagine church congregations of the North belting out the song with relish during the holiday seasons in an era when the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution was enacted and adopted by the states, and the horrors of slavery in America finally ended, once and for all. And who knows? Music can have a powerful influence, and the song may have helped to create the political climate that allowed those momentous events to happen. For that reason alone, O Holy Night might be the most historically significant Christmas carol in the holiday playlist.